George East gets lost on his way to the Cotentin peninsula
George loses himself in Normandy
Talk about déjà vu. After all these years of travelling the highways and byways of France, I recently managed to get us hopelessly and utterly lost. To make the offence worse, it happened in, so to speak, our own backyard. And in a region about which I have just written a guide book.
Lost in transition We were taking a break from our personal Tour de France, had dumped the collapsible (and collapsing) caravan in Ardèche and were heading north for one of my regular encounters with British expats who had made the move across the Channel.
As my wife pointed out, all we had to do was take the toll road and arrive in good time in Normandy to find a hotel. But I knew better. Toll roads were for those in a hurry, who had money to waste or did not have the confidence to go off-piste. Besides, we had our trusty satnav and road atlas if something went wrong.
So we set off, and it was a pleasant run until I was reminded of three potential obstacles to getting from A to B in France.
The first is the way those responsible for setting French road signs like to helpfully erect one at least every hundred yards until a crossroads or roundabout crops up, when they will often be noticeably absent. Another trick is to have them pointing ambiguously towards three possible routes.
The other thing I had overlooked was that minor roads are updated, amended and sometimes re-directed, even in rural France. This is okay if you have an up-to-date road atlas and/ or satnav. As ours are both more than a decade out of date, you can see the problem.
To cut a (very) long story short, what should have been a doddle turned into a disaster. We arrived at our destination well after dark to find the only accommodation available was a top-of-the range country inn, where the eyewatering cost of a room for the night was only exceeded by the price of a modest meal for two.
To this must be added the price of the extra fuel, and, believe it or not, having to pay to cross the same bridge twice. Ironically, the total of our overspend was about three times what we saved by not using the toll roads. I would like to think the experience taught me a lesson, but the truth is, as regular readers will understand, I doubt it.
We were in Normandy to meet a couple who live on the vast swathe of marshland that bisects the Cotentin (Cherbourg) peninsula.
Lynne and John Lee moved there from the Balearics 13 years ago. An unusual move from guaranteed sunshine to the brooding beauty of the marais, perhaps? “We lived on a pretty but small island for three years but were feeling a bit constrained and were looking for a change,” explains Lynne. “We chose Normandy because it is such a big and beautiful region and has easy access to the UK. We always liked the idea of living in France and had family here. Although a lot of people joke about the wet weather in Normandy, we had found the heat in the Balearics too humid during the summer.”
Lynne and John fell for an old farmhouse on the outskirts of a village. “The farmhouse – which had been in the same family for 300 years – was in good condition,” explains John, a former carpenter and builder. “I put in two new bathrooms, made a room into a study for Lynne’s writing and added a new kitchen and pantry.”
“It’s an advantage and a disadvantage having a builder as a husband,” laughs Lynne. “It’s great to have such a handy man about the house but the downside is that he’s always in great demand for his expertise from expats who don’t have his skills!”
When John had finished updating the farmhouse, he started on an old stable block, converting it into a gîte. “We really enjoy having visitors,” says Lynne, “and we get to meet people from around Europe.”
And do they miss much about living in the UK? “Our children of course, but they’re only across the Channel and come to see us often. And, to be honest, country pubs and a good fish and chip shop! But you can’t have everything…”
No turning back So, I ask Lynne, is there a secret to successfully transferring your life to another land? “I don’t know about ‘secret’ but there are some ground rules,” she says. “The first and most important is to learn the language – or do your best to. You don’t have to be fluent, and the French really appreciate you trying; the plain fact is that you can’t get to know people and join in with the community if you can’t speak to them. Secondly, you have to remember that you’re in a foreign country, where they sometimes do things differently. You don’t have to stop being British – just adapt to the way it is in your new country. We make a point of going to the local events like the summer fêtes and memorial services – and I’m even a member of the zumba class!”
And how did the Lees feel when the news came about Britain leaving the European community? “Obviously, it was as much of a shock for us as so many millions of people in the UK,” says Lynne. “But, after thinking it through, we’re not worried. We honestly can’t see how it is going to change our lives here, and there’s no point in fretting about things you can’t do anything about.”
When they first heard the news about Brexit, did they consider packing up and going home? “Not for more than a moment!” responds Lynne. “We’ve made our lives here. Things may change as we get older or have other reasons for moving. But honestly (she waves an arm towards the endless marais), would you want to leave all this?”
I look round, listen to the silence, think about their lives here and know exactly what she means. See you next time!
We can’t see how Brexit is going to change our lives here, and there’s no point fretting about things you can’t do anything about